By Denise DuBois
Update March 4, 2019 3:51 p.m. ET:
On Monday afternoon, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey was in the area and commented at the press conference.
“To the people of Lee County, please know we are here today to stand with you today, tomorrow, and in the days and weeks ahead. We will get through this together. Sheriff Jay Jones, you have been the quarterback and we thank you,” she said.
On Tuesday morning, Lee County Coroner Bill Harris released the names of the 23 victims of the storms. The victims range in ages from six years-old to 93 years-old.
“Our job now is to assist these families and guide them,” Harris said. All victims have been released to funeral homes.
Lee County EMA Director Kathy Carson said they will begin collecting debris and got clearance for debris to be pushed to the edge of the roadway. She did reiterate to not block driveways or fire hydrants.
A volunteer reception center was established Wednesday in Smiths Station and sent out volunteers to help with needs that were registered through 211.
“When citizens have a need, register at 211. We’ll match you with volunteers. So we need for you to register with 211,” Carson said.
The Weather Service did confirm two tornados, the first an EF-4 and the second an EF-2. The EF-4 had a 70-mile track and the second was on the ground for 29 miles.
Original story posted March 4, 2019 10:40 a.m. ET:
Late Sunday afternoon, multiple tornados ripped through Lee County and into Georgia devastating the communities in Beauregard and Smiths Station. There are at least 23 reported fatalities, including children, and the number of missing persons reports are in the double digits.
“This hurts my heart,” said Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones. “I love this county. It’s extremely upsetting to me to see these people hurting like this and families who have lost loved ones. It looks as if someone took a knife and just scraped the ground. There are slabs where homes formerly stood. There’s debris everywhere. Trees are snapped. Whole forested area trees are just snapped and lying on the ground.”
Jones said he has never seen this in his years in the community.
“I have not seen this type of destruction ever in my experience in Lee County and that covers a span for 50 years. It’s overwhelming, but I can assure you our folks and agencies are responding,” he said.
At this time, Jones said his priority is search and rescue. With so many people reported missing, Jones and local law enforcement agencies are using drones with infrared capabilities to find heat sensors on the ground, along with K9 units.
His hope is that people left the area and have not reported in yet.
“I would not be surprised to see the death toll increased,” Jones said. “We’re going to do everything we can to locate these individuals. We have secured limited access until we can get search and rescue teams on the ground and underway.” Those efforts were taking place as he spoke.
He did ask that while roads were open, non-residents should stay away so the first responders could work. The majority of the fatalities were reported in the areas of High 51 from Lee Road 42 to Highway 80, which includes Lee Road 38.
Helping the efforts are surrounding law enforcement agencies as well as medical examiners to identify the fatalities. Jones said injuries have been from minor to very severe and victims were transported to East Alabama Medical Center and Columbus hospitals.
“We are grateful for people offering support. The Community has come together. It’s going to be a tough several days, but the community is doing well. We are going to do everything we can to help, especially those who lost loved ones and who lost homes,” Jones said. “This is a tough, resilient community. It’s knocked them down, but they’ll be back.”
Jones also said they have heard from Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s administration and the White House is offering assistance.
It didn’t take long for recovery efforts to start. Sunday evening when storms passed, people were out helping neighbors. Smiths Station Mayor F.L. “Bubba” Copeland said Sunday Lee Road 294 had to be cut into because of the tree damage.
“It was just houses leveled and people displaced,” Copeland said. “It was a very dire scene. We were able to get in and help get people out of their homes. There were numerous volunteers who came out with chainsaws.”
Currently, Smiths Station isn’t taking donations as they work to assess the damage and what people need. They will organize volunteer efforts soon. Copeland urged people who have a need to call 211 and those who want to volunteer to sign up at Smiths Station City Hall. They will be called to volunteer.
Buck Wild Saloon in Smiths Station was hit. By the evening, people were posting photos of the clean-up at the bar. It’s reported that the Lee County Flea Market sign made landfall in Hamilton, Ga. A cell tower fell and blocked traffic along Highway 280/431 North.
The Village Foster Care is open today and tomorrow accepting donations and offering assistance to anyone who has a need. Cluck-It Bucket in Smiths Station is offering free meals for first responders.
“Our hearts are broken for Beauregard and those families. It’s devastating to see this in your community,” Copeland said.